There’s dope houses and then there’s dope houses. Any junkie knows what I mean when I say that. The dope house of the Troll is like the last house on the block, you know, for the junkie who has tried everything to stop using and nothing works.
The Troll. You’ve probably heard those tales from medieval times where, like the bridge you have to cross to save the maiden, or get to the water so the village can survive, or maybe just cross to get to market everyday has a gatekeeper where you have to pay the toll to get across. Whatever that toll might be. In those ancient stories the gatekeeper was often a hunch-backed creature with hooves for feet, bumps and hair coming off a massive nose, yellowed teeth, some broken, with the breath of a demon from hell issuing forth from his mouth. If you were unlucky enough not to have the toll, you might have to give up some precious possession to get across the bridge and get what you need, whatever that might be, and if you were desperate enough maybe you would sacrifice anything you had, maybe a child even, even the first-born male, just to make things right. But, as any junkie knows, nothing will ever be right again.
He was a modern day gatekeeper at a subterranean basement underneath a three-decker apartment house. The lights were never on in the dwellings above the basement. People were said to live there but no one ever saw anyone coming or going. Now and then there would be screams or cries from above us. The Troll would look up, the furrows on his brow would deepen and he would wink his good eye, the one where red mottled the whites of it, the brown one, not the pale blue one surrounded by yellow with a drooped lid that kept it half-closed all the time, even when he might be asleep, (no one ever knew for sure whether he slept at all or whether that bad eye could see or not), he would wink his good eye at us and say, “The angels. Can you hear them cry? Trapped in a heaven that they never made. Wing rot. They can’t lift off anymore without the help of God. And He’s down here with us, fixing to chase the nightmares away. Heaven help ’em.”
And then he’d chortle and snort from deep into his chest until a hacking cough would cut him off. Usually it would be time for another fix and Veronica de Veux would be slithering through the door with a brick for the gatekeeper.
Veronica. Really, everyone called her Ron so that’s what I’m going to call her for the rest of this tale. Ron de Veux was one of the Troll’s pets. She was a tired old whore, used to be a dancer, used to be a cover girl, used to be a porn star, used to be a call girl, used to be a streetwalker, and at the end no one even called her to the car for a two-bit blow-job, but always a junkie, always a junkie; no man ever moved her like the spike running the horse into her blood. It was the only time she ever came close to orgasm, except maybe when the Troll would roll his creaky wooden wheelchair into the back room of his crib with Ron de Veux right behind him with two loaded syringes. Those of us who knew would perk our ears up and wait. It wouldn’t be long before the moans would start and then suddenly it would sound like a choir of demons mating in twelve-step rhyme from behind that kitchen door. Whatever they were cooking, we knew that we didn’t want any part of it and we’d all drop another bag in the cookers ourselves to dim the lights in our cursed minds.
After a bit the door opened up and they’d come out. She’d be pushing the chair by the cracked rubber handles on the old dark wood and the Troll would wink at us as the spittle ran down his grizzled chin. Ron would be scratching at her crotch for hours after that with a dreamy look on her face. Then she would curl up at the foot of his chair and he would drop two bags into her cooker. The fire from her lighter flashed and within seconds she’d be sleeping with the dustman who was a close relation of the sandman, lord of dreams. The Troll would pull part of the blanket covering his withered branch-like legs down over her and put his grimey gnarled finger to his bearded lips. Sometimes his other pet, Nadia Chance, would be there too, yet she had many other functions in that last house on the block which I’ll go into later.
Then the Troll would start to speak. His low guttural voice would rumble out into the cement and brick basement and echo from corner to corner. Even those of us in the deepest nod would listen up and the basement would get so quiet that you could hear a dull spike skewer the fibrous scar tissue of an overused vein if you were sitting next to someone who happened to be fixing, or maybe the sound of the slide on the barrel of a hypodermic that had been run up and down so many times that even the vaseline on the rubber stopper was locking it up, or maybe even the powder dissolve when the spray hits the stash covering the greyed old cotton in the spoon. Instead of the clink of glasses there might be the ting of the metal buckle on the belt or the creak of the old leather as someone tightened up so they could get a clean hit. Might be that you were listening so hard that you missed the popping of airbubbles in your vein as you overshot the air from the syringe right in after the dope. Don’t worry though, it takes a lot of air to kill an old junkie and we’re not that lucky anyhow.
Did I drift off for a minute or two. Hey, that happens sometimes. Some sentences take an hour to finish, if you know what I mean. Anyway, it would get real quiet and then the Troll would start to spin a yarn.
“Well folks,” he would say, “now that I got your limited attention, let me tell you a true story that nobody will believe if you take it out of here. You can try but remember, who believes a junkie? Heh, heh, no one with any damn sense and you can put your fix money on that any day of the week. I’ll be glad to take it off your hands.
“Did I ever tell you about the four years I spent clean? Hey, I can see the looks you’re giving me,” and he winked his good eye shut, then when he opened it the light flashed out of his pinpoint pupil and he gave out with a soft chuckle. “Really, I’ll tell you, I was a card-carrying member of Narcotics Anonymous going from meetings to detoxes to carry the message of hope for the sick and suffering addict. I chaired meetings and even sponsored people. I kinda do that here too, sponsor people into dreams, let ’em meet the Dustman themselves before they go permanently into the angel’s dreaming in deathtime.”
“My life was going along quite well during that period. Sure there were times that I felt like a little tickle from the old poppy dust would lighten the load. Probably every day it crossed my mind but you know, if you don’t pick it up, you don’t get high. Which is why I make sure that Ron here, “pointing to the sleeping woman at his feet, “picks it up. ‘Cause I sure ain’t in the shape to be rolling up the stairs in those dope houses. I like to stay right here where my dreams live and keep safe.
“You might wonder why I stopped a good run of reality, just like that, when everything was right as ice cream on apple pie. Maybe you’d like to know what it was that kicked me back into the life and made it so that I never want to have an undusted moment again as long as I live.
“Well, if you don’t want to know you can just slip out the door back into the cold and hang out at the auto-mat. See if Jimmy the Greek will take care of your needs and find yourself fixing in an alley or busted by the man and crying the blues in a shit-stained cell out on Rikers. Or you can just sit back, shut your eyes, and let the ole’ Troll tell you why he took this ticket to ride, got on the horse and never looked back.
“It was because of Ar Lain Ta. Maybe you heard old Casey over there speak of him. Maybe you’ve run into him yourself or heard the stories in the other places. I’ll tell you my story about him and then we’ll let Casey tell his, if he’s up to it. Yeah, old Casey met him too.”
Right then I saw Casey pull out another glassine envelope, slit the tape with a cutting blade, and shake it empty into his cooker. Just hearing the man’s name, Ar Lain Ta, that was enough. Casey’s hand shook so much that I reached over, took the gimmick out of his hand, traced his vein with my finger, tapped it once with the point and then slid it in. The fresh blood made a spot at the bottom of the slide and I pulled up on it for a second and then, when the blood plumed up in the barrel, slammed it home.
The Troll continued.
“It was like this. I was sitting in the church in my chair after confession, you know, being in recovery and all had brought me back to the church of my childhood. I was alone there just contemplating my future, like in a state of meditation, when I first caught the scent. You know the smell, that smell when the fire first hits the pipe, or when you walk in the door of an opium den, that sweet smell that lets you know that, no matter what tragic circumstance is on you, you’re gonna be all right as soon as your lips kiss the pipe. It had been a long time since I caught a whiff like that and so naturally I look up to see where it’s coming from. Maybe the priest was coming back around with the incense burner to chase the stench of hell out or whatever.
I look up and he’s standing right in front of me. A man of Asian extraction dressed in a dark suit, very natty, smiling white teeth beaming from his oriental lips and soft eyes looking at me. Where he came from or how he slipped up on me as quiet as the breath of a mouse I just don’t know.
“Lloyd,” he says. That was the name I went by in those old days.
“Huh, how’d you know my . . . ” and he interrupts with
“Ssshhh. It’s okay.”
But right at that moment it just felt all wrong, even the chair I spent all my time in since the war went odd on me and hurt me in places I had forgotten since the last sickness, the last time I kicked in the dark damp cell out at Ryker’s Island.
“Son,” he continued, “you have some unfinished business to attend to. Remember the first time you hit up? You swore to the swamp flies that were buzzing around your head that you would do this the rest of your life. I believe you’re not quite done yet.”
“Hey,” I came up with the retort, “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, but I do.” His eyes pierced mine and then I caught the scent of the dope sizzling in the cooker and I peeked around to see where the odor was coming from. Then I realized. By the God on the crucifix, the scent was spilling from his body. It was at that moment that he touched me on the head with his hand and the rush came like I was shooting the pure right from the backhills of Burma.
To be very honest with you, I did not pull away. His hand rested on my head and the rush came and came and the dustman had me in his kingdom. The dreams. Oh my God the dreams. And then he lifted his hand away and it all came to a stop.
We all know what it’s like when the dope starts to leave and the sickness starts to kick in, that melancholy feeling, and then all of the senses sharpen up and the tears start in the eyes, that empty feeling in the stomach when you know, if you had the time, you could write the blues for every junkie, everyman that ever cried out to the deaf Gods in the night. That’s just what happened.
Then he pressed an object which I could not focus on into my hand and whispered an address into my ear.
The last words I heard him say were, “The basement is yours for as long as you like. Leave the angels on the three floors above to their own tortured passage but let your basement be a sanctuary for those at the end of the road, those who, due to sundry losses in their life, need the extreme unction delivered by the opiates. It will be your kingdom, you will be the Troll, you will be the gatekeeper, the one who will grant these souls deliverance. And their numbers will grow as the unrest in the world increases and there will come to you one day a man who will tell you of my doings. However, the knowing will not be for you alone. Another will come to tell the tale to the world and he will write it in the form of a book. Of course, no one will believe him. Who believes a junkie anyway?”
And then there was laughter that echoed through the church. Suddenly I realized that my eyes were closed and I looked up and he was gone. A dream. It must have been a dream.
Just then the priest, Father Michael, came up to me.
“Can I help you out, my son?” he asked.
I nodded my head and he began to roll me up the aisle when I noticed that the fingers of my right hand were clenched tightly around an object. I opened my hand.
In my hand, God help me, God save me, was a brick of heroin with a key taped to the outside. The key fits this basement door. And here we are, all of us, touched by the poppy till death do we part.”
The Troll bowed his head and the quiet clogged our ears. Then this grotesque creature sitting in the wheelchair looked over at me and winked. He winked at me, may God turn my next fix to chalk if I lie, with his bad eye, the drooped one, the one that never moves. And he began to laugh.
Marc D. Goldfinger is a formerly homeless vendor who is now housed. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via his web page MarcDGoldfinger. Marc also has books on www.smashwords.net that can be downloaded for $2.99.